As coronavirus cases rise in Africa, so has the amount of mis- and disinformation. Only Spreading Facts, a new DW Akademie campaign, is providing partners with additional resources to spread facts about COVID-19.
Over the first year of the pandemic, Namibia has managed to keep the infection rate under control. But the number of coronavirus cases exploded in June, from around 300 daily cases to over 2,500 with peaks of 70 deaths a day. This led to new nationwide lockdowns and added significant strain to the country's healthcare system.
Neighboring countries including Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa are also seeing rises in infection rates, much of it due to the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus. This third wave has spurred mis- and disinformation about a range of topics from possible treatments and cures to the dangers of vaccinations to spread through social media and messaging apps.
"We see a lot of misinformation about unproven cures for coronavirus being shared on WhatsApp groups," said Peter Deselaers, DW Akademie's program director for Namibia and Southern Africa. "Obviously this kind of information can be dangerous."
Media organizations across Africa, many already struggling due to the loss of income during the pandemic, have not been able to keep up with the speed and volume of mis- and disinformation. With support from DW Akademie, partner organizations across Africa have stepped up their efforts to help push back at this flood of false news through training, fact-checking and Media and Information Literary (MIL) programs.
"Early on in the pandemic, we realized that mis- and disinformation about the coronavirus was going to be a major challenge for media organizations in the countries we work in," said Nina Noelle, DW Akademie's project manager for the Only Spreading Facts initiative. The campaign was launched in English and French and is currently running in countries across the continent. It is funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
DW Akademie partners have since developed creative means to educate the public and to deliver facts to audiences which can be used as templates for fighting disinformation during future crises.
"Unfortunately, false or misleading information can spread quickly during any crisis, not just the ongoing pandemic," added Noelle.
Uganda also witnesses a similar jump in infections over the same period. Daily cases jumped from around 200 a day to a high of over 1,700 while daily deaths rose from a couple a day to over 80. New lockdown measures were also put in place as less than 1% of Ugandans have been fully vaccinated.
None of this came as a surprise to the team of twenty-somethings who produce the "The Debunk Show" in cooperation with the Media Challenge Initiative, a DW Akademie partner. They have been following the false and misleading information that has been spreading through Ugandan social media since the start of the pandemic.
"People are willing to post anything in order to get likes, get YouTube views," said Reagan Kiyimba, one of the show's producers. "That is why we have to be fast to check a claim before it really spreads. We want our facts to spread faster than fake news."
The Debunk Show produces videos, audio reports and graphics that are meant to "debunk" rumors, fake news and disinformation. Like other DW partners, their content is distributed through social media and on messaging platforms. Audio reports are also carried by local radio stations and some are then translated into local languages.
The topics that the Debunk team tackle do not just include those related to the pandemic. Their most recent show discredited the rumor that long-time president Yoweri Museveni had died. But the most persistent topic has been related to the coronavirus, namely posts pushing fake cures and checking claims about vaccinations. They found that much of the confusion stems from poor communication coming from the respective government representatives, not always from people purposely trying to misinform.
"Many people are just worried about how the vaccine will affect them, especially if they have pre-existing conditions. They have questions and we try to investigate the answers," said Marion Apio, another producer on the show.
Aside from the false information spreading about supposed treatments for COVID-19, many people in Namibia are coming out against the use of vaccines to help curb the spread of the virus. Much of this discourse happening on messaging apps are based on falsehoods and misinterpretations of medical studies in the US and Europe.
According to an AfroBarometer study released in June, "a majority of Namibians have concerns about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and believe that prayer is more effective than vaccines" in preventing infection and that only about half say they are likely to try to get vaccinated. Just over 1% of the population has been fully vaccinated.
"COVID-19 continues to be a major point around which disinformation is being created and spread," said Frederico Links, editor of Namibia Fact Check, on Fact Talk, a podcast the organization produces to discuss COVID-19 related disinformation in order to protect the communities they serve from making poor health-related decisions.
"As people continue to be exposed to this kind of health-related disinformation, I foresee this having real-world consequences for the health outcomes of Namibians going forward," added Links.
Namibia Fact Check is a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and a DW Akademie partner. The organization publishes reports that fact-check public statements and media stories on the coronavirus situation. The organization also offers reporting tools and resources for journalists and other fact-checkers covering the pandemic. The audio podcast is also posted to WhatsApp so that they can be easily shared and broadcast on radio stations serving local communities.
Because of the constantly changing situation on the ground, reporting accurate information around vaccines and treatments has been a difficult task for traditional media outlets. According to DW Akademie's Peter Deselaers, many DW Akademie partners have stepped in to provide reliable background information and in-depth answers to the questions around vaccines, cures and regulations. Regardless of the topic, the strategy remains the same: to put out as much factual and reliable information as possible through as many media channels as possible in languages that the people understand.
"We are trying to flood the system with more reliable information in order to flush out the unreliable content," he said.